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This is one of Rose Tremain's earlier novels, from the mid-eighties, and in spite of its confusing cast of characters is, as almost always, an accomplished and enjoyable read.
The main character, I suppose, is Larry Kendal, and his struggle to give his new life in France some purpose. He is toying with ideas to re-start his swimming pool business with a grand pool constructed on the small plot of land on which he and Muriel now live - in what had once beentheir holiday home.
A short way into the novel, artist Muriel has to return to Oxford to be with her dying mother. From this point we follow the various developments in the lives of Larry and Muriel separately, as they each follow their own paths.
In Pomerac the novel follows the events in the life of Larry, his close neighbours, Gervaise, her husband and her German lover, and the other members of this small community as he gets to feel more and more at home, and as his magnificent swimming pool design gradually becomes a reality.
Over in the UK, Miriam's mother, Leni, is very frail, but still wields great authority over a small collection of admirers by the strength of her personality and by the memories of a lively past. Miriam is quickly absorbed back into this group, and their relationships.
Eventually the death of Leni, opposition to Larry's pool and the various sub-plots come to a head all at about the same time and the outcome for most of the characters is somewhat less than joyful.
For me, the more peripheral characters were maybe given too much prominence in the plot - or possibly there were just too many of them. I found it difficult to care about all of them.
But, still a well above average read.
Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic.
The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else.
On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read.
Heads of the Colored People is a witty and - at times - savage portrayal of middle class African Americans. Through many of the stories there is a thread of expectations - the expectations of the black community of their own; the expectations of the white folk; and the expectations of the individuals themselves. There is a sense that it is very hard, if not impossible, to be an individual who just happens to be black. There are roles to be played and if you don't conform to the expectations, someone is going to get hurt.
The stories themselves are very varied. We have a crotchety university professor who hoped for a quieter life by working at the black university; warring mothers waving qualifications at one another when botching about one another's daughter; a social media whore; a disabled guy and his stalker. None of the stories is boring, and for the most part they work well. Some of the stories interlink or have common characters - and I might spot more links if I went back to the beginning. This builds a sense of community and shows how some of the characters resent having expectations forced upon them while they force their own expectations on others.
Despite the darkness, there's a healthy dose of positivity. Many of the characters are upwardly mobile - even the victims don't have a sense of victimhood. Poverty is something that happens to other people, although the legacy if poverty is hinted at occasionally - for example, one story centres around the first time a black person tasted potato bread.
The writing is clear and the narrative direction is clear. None of those opaque short stories with ambiguous endings here. It's not pretending to be arty, but is quietly effective in giving the reader both entertainment and an insight into a community that may not be well known or well represented in literature.
The collection is short - always a relief with short stories as collections can feel quite choppy quite quickly - and the individual stories feel just the right length, long enough to make their point but short enough not to go stale.
Really, a very good collection.